The last mourners had long arrived, and the company was seated in an attitude of hushed and painful expectancy for the officiating minister. There was no sign, however, of his appearance; and the mourners asked themselves in silence if he who was to perform the final rites for the dead had forgotten the hour or the day.
The fingers of the old clock slowly crept along the dial-plate towards four, the hour so relentlessly enforced for interments for half a century by the sexton, who was now about to lay away his own wife in the greedy maw of the grave. The monotonous oscillation of the pendulum, sounding as the stroke of a passing bell, gathered solemnity of tone in the felt hush that rested upon all in the room—a hush as deep as that which rested upon the dead. All eyes, under the cover of stealthily drooping lids, stole glances at old Joseph, whose face fought hard to hide the emotions running like pulsing tides beneath the surface. At last a woman, whose threescore years and ten was the only warrant for her rude interruption, exclaimed:
‘Wheer’s th’ parson? Hes he forgetten, thinksto?’
‘Mr. Penrose is ill i’ bed,’ replied old Joseph, ’but I seed Mr. Hanson fra Burnt Hill Chapel, and he promised as he’d be here in his place.’
The clock beat out its seconds with the same monotonous sound, and the finger crept towards the fateful hour. Then came the wheeze and whir preliminary to the strokes of four, conveying to familiar ears that only eight more minutes remained. At this warning Joseph arose from his seat, and, walking out into the graveyard, made direct to an eminence overlooking the long trend of road, and, raising one hand to shade his now failing sight, looked down the valley to see if the minister was on his way to the grave. It was in vain. Tears began to dim his sight, and for a moment the man overcame the sexton. The struggle was but brief; in another moment he was again the sexton. Returning to the cottage, he scarcely reached the threshold before he cried out, with all the firmness of his cruelly professional tones:
‘Parson or no parson, aat o’ this dur (door) hoo goes at four o’clock.’
As the clock struck the fateful hour the old woman was carried to her grave; and as they lowered her, Joseph, with uncovered head, let fall the clods from his own hand, repeating, in a hoarse yet tremulous voice, the words:
‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.’
In another moment the old sexton reeled, and fell into the arms of the men who stood near him. It was but a passing weakness, for he soon pulled himself together, and accompanied the mourners to the funeral tea, which was served in a neighbouring house.
Never afterwards, however, was old Joseph heard to rail at mourners when late, or known to close the Rehoboth gates against an overdue funeral.